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When the producers of the HBO series “Barry” asked Henry Winkler to audition for the role of Gene Cousineau, they assured him that he was on a short list. Winkler said he was willing, as long as the list didn’t include Dustin Hoffman. “Because he’s a movie star. He’d get it. If Dustin was on the list, I wasn’t going in. They said no. I said OK.”
There was no particular reason to think the two-time Oscar winner would be up for the same part, but Winkler can be forgiven for indulging in a little paranoia. Across the span of his 50-year career, he has had some highs — 1970s pop-culture saturation to rival “Star Wars” and the music from “Jaws” — and lows, including a long stretch where he couldn’t get hired, filled with the sense that he’d been typecast into oblivion.
“Barry,” co-created by and starring Bill Hader, is about acting or, more specifically, about a depressed hit man who comes to Los Angeles to murder someone and decides to give acting a try. He joins a class taught by Gene, a washed-up name-dropper — he makes restaurant reservations as “Neil Patrick Harris” — who has covered the walls of his acting studio with posters of plays he produced, directed and starred in, including a gray-haired turn as Peter Pan. Inside his classroom, he’s a legend, a sometimes-gifted teacher, ragingly sincere as he spurs his students to find their voice. In the real world, he’s just another out-of-work actor, one with such serious anger-management issues that he was barred from attending Patrick Swayze’s funeral.
In a scene that Winkler performed for his audition, Gene is running a class in his black-box studio, instructing his star student, Sally, played on the show by Sarah Goldberg, to dig deeper. Hader and his co-creator, Alec Berg, watched Winkler work his way through the scene. “The part had originally been written as some kind of drill sergeant, but Henry had this instinct to console her,” Berg explained. “And even when he tried to be mean, he has such an inherent warmth.”
Berg and Hader started pushing Winkler himself to dig deeper.
“You need to really go after her,” Hader told him. “Like if you’ve ever been really angry at a person and you just want to hurt them. You want to take her down so you can build her up. It’s how you manipulate these people.”
“Oh,” Winkler said. “So this man is an asshole.”
“Yes, Henry,” Hader said. “You’re playing an asshole.” With that, Winkler locked in on the character, and the scene became more interesting.
In the episode as it was finally broadcast, Gene is in a fury, and Sally is onstage. Sensing a false performance, he shouts an expletive. He says it again, cutting her off as she stumbles through her monologue. She tries to defend herself. “Excuse me,” he says, “I don’t give a [expletive]! Even your excuses are false. You’re up there, you’re stinking up my stage, babe. What the [expletive] do you want?”
Finally, she mumbles, “To be an actress.”
“Again, I don’t believe you!”
Tearing up, she says, “It’s all I’ve ever wanted in the whole world!”
“Oh, really?” Gene says. He turns his back to her and faces the class. “Oh, yeah, last week she takes me out for a cup of coffee, starts to cry, snot running down her nose. All of a sudden she says, ‘I’m not gonna make it.’ I’m telling you, I was embarrassed. It was pathetic. Here was a person who’s spending her money, she doesn’t have any talent whatsoever. This chick shouldn’t even be in this class. I cannot believe — ”
“That is not fair, Gene!” she sobs. And now, having shredded her defenses, Gene turns back, and in a flash the hostility is gone — he’d only been acting — and he gently, kindly implores her. “Don’t think,” he says. “Just finish the scene.” It works. Sally’s performance is utterly changed, it’s raw and alive, and at the end of the scene, Gene hugs her, tells her he loves her, apologizes for his methods, then turns to the class and says: “I want you to create a life right here on this stage. I mean, we’re not here studying some [expletive] TV-commercial acting! That’s not why you came to L.A., is it? You didn’t move all the way across the country for that. This is the theater!”
Winkler crushed it. After the audition, Hader turned to Berg and said, “He just made the part better.”
Berg told me: “If we had cast what was on the page, we would’ve ended up with a much smarmier, darker monster. But the balance of warmth and pathos that Henry brings to the character through his performance — and also just through who he is and what people know about his life story — is so consistently perfect with the vibe of the character that they lie on top of each other very nicely.”
“When other actors did the scene, it was pretty vicious,” Hader told me. “When Henry did it, it felt more personal to him, like he could’ve been talking to himself.”
Winkler with Bill Hader and Sarah Goldberg in ‘‘Barry.’’Credit…Jordin Althaus/HBO
“Barry” mercilessly mocks the plight of actors, but it also takes the work seriously, defending acting as a calling, as a way to address despair and as a technique for transformation and change. Watching that first season made me rethink Winkler’s whole strange journey. It was a gutsy move for a man who had been struggling to land a great dramatic role for 35 years to play an actor who can’t act, trying to teach great acting. And — in a miracle of art imitating life imitating art — it paid off. Winkler won a prime-time Emmy after the first season, 42 years after his first nomination for the award, and in 2019, the second season went on to become HBO’s most-watched half-hour show.
I first met Winkler in the fall of 2019, before anyone knew that “Barry” was about to go on a two-year Covid hiatus. It sounds like a long time ago, but as I stood beside this icon of my own distant past, looking up at the apartment building on the Upper West Side of Manhattan where his parents moved in the 1940s, it felt like a long time ago even then.
I wanted to meet there so we could talk about Winkler’s rotten childhood. Winkler suffers from severe dyslexia, which was undiagnosed until his early 30s, and he talks openly about his lifelong struggles with reading and math. He even co-wrote a popular series of books for middle-school kids about a plucky little boy named Hank Zipzer, who lives on this very corner and whose days are filled with comical disasters caused by his differently functioning brain. Winkler is the son of Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany, and in his talks in schools and bookstores, he always mentions them. “The kindergartners like when I do their German accents, and the older kids like hearing how mean they were,” he said. The combination of his dyslexia and family history make for an interesting pathology, marked at once by shame and determination. One way he copes is to stay busy, to make himself useful, to work. So on that warm fall day, he flew to New York from his home in Los Angeles to promote his latest book, the first in a new series for children called “Alien Superstar,” about a blue-skinned alien with six eyeballs who is mistaken for an actor in costume. Our meeting had been squeezed between radio interviews, a book signing in Scarsdale, appearances on “The Today Show” and “The Tonight Show” and some school visits.
He noted some changes to the building’s exterior, then stepped back and pointed to the window of his childhood bedroom, the place where he hid from his parents’ rages and danced alone to the music from “West Side Story,” rehearsing the moves from memory while dreaming of a way out. He recalled the moment nearby when he accidentally stepped into traffic and was grazed by a van; the driver carried him into the building. As we walked away from all that heavy emotion, down 78th Street, he pointed out the stairwell where he had his first kiss; the Chirping Chicken on Amsterdam Avenue that used to be a drugstore; the fire station where he once knew the firemen’s names.
At the corner of Amsterdam, a mail carrier called out, “Mr. Henry!” Winkler returned the greeting, then put cash in a homeless girl’s hands. Receipts fell out of his wallet, and he chased them down the sidewalk. He got stuck at the door of a bakery, holding it open for a woman with a stroller, then a second stroller pushed by a woman who stared at him as he waved to her kid. “All these babies!” Then he went up to the counter and accidentally cut the line. After realizing what he did — he had ordered his slice of poundcake by then — he apologized, introducing himself, asking the young couple he cut in front of their names and the origins of their names, then paid for their order.
“I had coffee in my last interview,” he said as we sat on a bench in a bus stop by P.S. 87, his old elementary school. “And now I’m flying out of my shoes.” He opened the bag and started eating.
As people came into the bus stop and stared, Winkler greeted them and offered his seat. He was a little jet-lagged and apparently hungry, doing his best between bites to answer my probing questions about his early trauma, although it was almost impossible to hear his replies over the clatter of jackhammers.
Winkler’s father, Harry, a cultured, commanding little Napoleon, was fluent in maybe six languages, and used more than one of them to berate his son. His mother Ilse’s weapon of choice was a hairbrush. Winkler recalled a morning at breakfast when he clowned over a bowl of Rice Krispies, then cowered as his mother leaped to her feet to attack him. After he figured out what they thought of him, he did his best to tune them out, which eventually turned his living room into a war zone. “I learned to squash a lot,” he told me at the bus stop. “But eventually you can’t squash anymore, because there’s no more room to squash.”
His parents had so narrowly escaped the Nazis when they left Berlin in 1939 that even one day later, Harry’s brother tried but could not get out. He died in the camps, as did most of their extended family. Harry smuggled out the family jewels, because he knew they were never going back, but he led Ilse to believe that they would be heading home soon. She missed Germany and suffered from depression, and when Winkler was born in 1945, she had a nervous breakdown and was institutionalized, though he wasn’t sure exactly when or for how long. “It’s all hazy,” Winkler said, “and I didn’t like them to the point where I never asked them a question.”
He and his sister, Beatrice, were not close until years later, and he recalled with dread their fractured home life, the somber mood at the dinner table, the lack of praise and laughter and kids’ art on the walls. His academic failings and learning disability added to that pervasive feeling of sadness at home. He didn’t have cool friends and was always on edge. But in sixth grade, he saw the Moiseyev Dance Company in Madison Square Garden, and it took his breath away, the music and the bodies in flight. At 13 he saw “West Side Story,” then went back 10 more times.
“My emotionality inside was always bigger than was appropriate,” he said. “Man, oh, man.” Maybe a life on the stage, on the screen, would be large enough to contain him.
Winkler recalled how, as the credits rolled and the overture swelled and an actor like Albert Finney, Jimmy Stewart or James Dean came onscreen, he would get a feeling as if he’d been hit by lightning — a raw, electrified desire to be that guy. Watching the climactic scene in “Rebel Without a Cause,” as Dean sobs over Sal Mineo’s lifeless body, Winkler fell in love with the way physical motion alone could communicate such deep feeling. Years later, he learned to rehearse his lines with an awareness of the repetition in his movements, using sense memory and muscle memory as a way to work around his dyslexia.
Winkler’s dyslexia still makes him feel anxious and embarrassed, he told me, and it affects almost every interaction. Dyslexics are used to encountering obstacles and working around them, but the disability doesn’t improve over time. He has trouble decoding his own handwriting and following maps and schedules; he can only remember left and right by thinking about which elbow hangs out the window when he’s behind the wheel. Stacey Winkler, his wife of 44 years, told me that he manages to drive past the gate to their house once or twice a week. On Winkler’s first network-TV job, a guest shot in a 1973 episode of “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” the cast broke for lunch, and Winkler didn’t know where to go or know whom to ask and swore to himself that he would never, ever let that happen to another person he was acting with.
Although it did take him many tries, he eventually passed geometry and graduated from high school. At Emerson College in Boston, he nearly flunked out several times but played the title role in “Peer Gynt.” In 1967 as a senior, he auditioned for the Yale School of Drama, hoping to one day make it on Broadway, but on his way to his audition, his anxiety spiked and the monologue he memorized from Shakespeare’s “Two Gentlemen of Verona” flew completely out of his head. So he invented a monologue that sounded Shakespearean, really sold it and got in anyway.
James Naughton, a two-time Tony winner, remembers meeting Winkler in their first year at Yale, describing him as this sweet, young-looking guy with a ton of energy. “I get a big kick out of the fact that he’s playing an acting teacher,” Naughton said, of Winkler’s role in “Barry.” He described the destructive atmosphere of their three-year program. “Those of us who survived did it in spite of our teachers.” He remembered a single instance where he and a partner received praise for their technique. “ ‘Wait, what?! Someone actually said we accomplished something?’ It’s sort of built into the system, breaking you down and criticizing you and making you feel like [expletive].”
Winkler also recalled the abuse he took at Yale, imitating Stella Adler scoffing as he tried to open an imaginary gate to walk through his imaginary garden, and Norma Brustein losing it when she caught him taking notes in class, accusing him of undermining her authority, criticism that would one day come in handy for “Barry.” “I wasted my time, not by being a student, but being so nervous,” Winkler said. “I was like a hummingbird, flapping my wings to stay up. I didn’t mean to be defensive, I tried to stay open. I took notes, but I couldn’t spell, so I couldn’t read back my notes because I couldn’t tell what the [expletive] it said.”
At Yale, Winkler’s ambition and relentless work ethic rubbed some of his classmates the wrong way, and they coined a slogan for him: “I want instant international recognition.” He described himself “as that toy that you punch. Bozo goes down, comes back to center — that’s what I did.”
Jill Eikenberry, another classmate, who went on to star on “L.A. Law,” saw signs of that determination during their second year, when Winkler appeared in a production of “The Physicists,” a 1962 play by Friedrich Dürrenmatt. The play opens with Winkler’s character, a patient in a mental institution, having just murdered a nurse. “It was really kind of shocking,” she said, “because I saw this person who was so clearly not Henry, and how did he know how to do that when we were just newbies?” He had found something, or revealed something. “He was this nice Jewish boy from New York,” she continued. “Mysterious and dark and interesting and weird? There wasn’t any of that. But the mysterious parts came out.”
At the end of their three-year program, Winkler and Naughton were asked to join the Yale Repertory Theater, a professional regional company whose productions sometimes advance to Broadway. In the fall of 1970, Winkler got his first paying job as an actor, earning a solid review in The Times for a staged adaptation of three Philip Roth short stories. He joined an improv group; tried out for plays, Broadway, movies and commercials; made $10 appearing on a game show; got fired from a play in Washington, D.C.; had one line on a soap opera, delivering a telegram. He made it to Broadway (in a play called “42 Seconds From Broadway”) that closed on opening night. “I decided at that moment, I was not just going to be on Broadway for one night. I’m going to make this work.” He landed a movie job, driving a Mafia don’s limo in “Crazy Joe,” a gritty 1974 New York crime picture starring Peter Boyle. It wasn’t much, but then came a bigger role, with Sylvester Stallone in “The Lords of Flatbush.”
Things were happening for Winkler. He felt conflicted about doing commercials, about heading West, about auditioning for TV series. But he moved to Los Angeles because a representative at his agent’s office said it was time. He rented a room in West Hollywood next door to a belly dancer, and five days later won that guest spot on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.” A week after that he got a guest spot on “The Bob Newhart Show.” Two weeks later he read for the “Happy Days” pilot.
Scripted television was going through a revolution in 1973, and Norman Lear was at the center of it. He pretty much owned the realistic comedy genre, starting with “All in the Family,” and was already dealing with gender inequality, cancer, rape, impotence, gun control, homophobia and teenage alcoholism. “Happy Days,” produced by Garry Marshall, offered an escape from all of that. Set safely in Milwaukee in the 1950s, it dodged the big issues of the day and instead told the heartwarming story of the Cunningham family and their teenage son Richie, struggling into manhood. The studio wanted a motorcycle gang to balance out the family but couldn’t afford one, so Marshall, who had adapted Neil Simon’s “The Odd Couple” for television, wrote the character of Arthur Fonzarelli as Richie’s swaggering sidekick, basing him on tough guys he grew up with in the Bronx. “I thought I wanted a tall, handsome blond,” Marshall wrote in his memoir, “and in walked a short, dark-haired actor from Emerson College and the Yale School of Drama.”
Winkler was already sweating through his shirt when he walked in, but he transformed his body and his voice, and although his part was six lines long, he got Marshall’s attention by forcing his scene partner, who was standing, to back into a chair. When he finished, he threw the script in the air and sauntered out, and two weeks later he beat out Micky Dolenz of the Monkees for the part. He accepted it on the condition that he be allowed to show the emotional side of the Fonz, this indestructible greaser whose face easily flickered with concern, making sad little dinners for one in his dingy apartment.
“Happy Days” was a nostalgic, soapy comedy about high school kids making out, driving hot rods and working in the family hardware store. A review of Season 1 recommended it for 7-year-olds and the “usual substratum of catatonics who are afraid to do anything else on Tuesday nights except watch television,” but it became a hit, and despite a scarcity of lines in the first season, Winkler’s tenderhearted, lusty, defeated car mechanic became the breakout star.
In the second season, “Happy Days” was up against Lear’s African American family sitcom, “Good Times,” and Jimmie Walker’s catchphrase “Dyn-o-mite” had caught fire. Marshall, pushing to make his show bigger and faster, urged his cast to use wardrobe, gestures and easy-to-imitate lines, because TV fame in the ’70s depended on it. Book ’em Danno. Who loves ya, baby. As the writers moved the Fonz to the center of the show, and they hit No. 1 in the ratings and then fought to stay on top, Winkler’s naturalistic approach to a humane, domineering, goofy, self-pitying wrench head was subsumed by his catchphrase “whoas” and “aayyys.”
I was 10 when “Happy Days” came on the air, and not the most discerning viewer. I thought Linc on “The Mod Squad” was the coolest guy on TV, with Kwai Chang Caine of “Kung Fu” as a close second,but the Fonz was hard to look away from. He was ironic and emotional, the tip of his tongue pressed between his teeth when he dialed the phone, and his voice broke when he turned impish, shrieking, “The Fonz wants to dance!” A glow of radiant affection beamed out of him for his surrogate mother, Mrs. C. The Fonz could be generous, self-absorbed, loyal and neurotic, all at once.
It is sometimes the case that the longer a show stays on the air, the stupider it becomes. Over the next few seasons, the writers granted the Fonz increasingly bizarre powers. He danced the kazatsky, jumped his motorcycle over 14 barrels, controlled the very animals of the forest. He played Hamlet, played the bongos, kicked and punched doors, walls, cars and the jukebox with magical results. He dressed like Elvis and sang “Heartbreak Hotel.” He took on saintly powers, lecturing on racism, desegregating Richie’s band. Season 5 began with a baroque three-parter in California that ended with Fonzie jumping over a shark on water-skis (giving rise to the phrase “jump the shark”).
“I’ll admit,” said Ron Howard, who played Richie Cunningham, “I never fully understood the tone of that show.” In an interview in 2006, he recalled sitting on the set during the shark episode, flipping through the script. It was a jumbled mess, he said. “We all thought it was a little ludicrous.” But Winkler’s character remained central to the story, even as castmates tired of the hysteria surrounding him. In her memoir, “My Days, Happy and Otherwise,” Marion Ross, who played Mrs. Cunningham, recalled, “It was not Henry, but the character of Fonzie, whom we all at times resented, because he sucked the air out of everything associated with the show.”
Winkler struggled with his own weird experience of the monster he created. At the height of it, he met Stacey and her son, married Stacey, had two more children and traveled all over the world as a superstar. But he couldn’t help wondering, in a more essential way, what it meant. “That character got through as early as age 3,” he said. “I had children come up to me and go, ‘Ayyy!’ It was amazing. I’m not kidding. And half my brain knew this was a good thing, a pragmatic thing, this was keeping the show on the air. And the other half I never let in, someone telling me how much I meant to them. Because I realized early on, nothing about me had changed. I was still short. I still couldn’t spell. I still had trouble reading. Being a star didn’t fix any of that.”
By 1984, “Happy Days” had been slipping in the ratings for eight seasons, so it shouldn’t have been such a shock when it was finally canceled. Winkler did his impression for me of his younger self, at the moment he realized it was over, sitting in his office at Paramount with his head in his hands. “I never thought past this. I’ve lived my dream. I have no idea what to do.” He asked himself: “Will I ever do anything as powerful as the Fonz? Do I do anything less? What do I take, what do I turn down, ‘Oh, that’s too much like the Fonz.’” He desperately wanted to distance himself from the character he helped create. “I thought I could beat it. I was manic about not being typecast. When I met Jed” — Stacey’s son from her first marriage — “he said, ‘Hi, Fonzie,’ and I said, ‘Would you like it if I called you Ralph?’ I was already instructing this 4-year-old. It was insane.”
Think about iconic characters from long-running hit shows: George Costanza, Ally McBeal, Don Draper, Norm, Niles, Rhoda, the cast of “Will and Grace,” “Sex and the City” or “Friends.” As an actor, you spend years inside that character, you become that character, sort of, and then your show is canceled and it’s time to grow and evolve, to convince casting directors, studio execs, writers and audiences that you’re someone new. Inadvertently triggering associations to your last gig ruins that. If you look up the word “typecasting” on Wikipedia, you can read about the struggles of William Shatner and Patrick Stewart, or you can just watch “Galaxy Quest,” a movie about a bunch of typecast “Star Trek”-type actors miserably signing autographs at low-rent fan conventions. After 178 episodes and four films in his Starfleet uniform, Stewart told The London Times in 2007, “It came to a point where I had no idea where Picard began and I ended.” (Stewart, by the way, is back with the Enterprise crew and is three seasons into “Star Trek: Picard.”)
“ ‘Happy Days’ was a blessing and a curse,” Bob Balaban told me. Balaban and Winkler had known each other since the 1970s but got closer in the spring of 2019, in France, shooting “The French Dispatch,” Wes Anderson’s movie, in which they play art-dealer brothers. “Henry is an absolutely wonderful actor,” he said. “But it took nine or 10 years for the frenzy over the Fonz to calm down enough so you could put him in something, and he didn’t enter into your serious movie and get laughter just because he was the Fonz. Movies are about believing, acting is about believing, and it’s hard sometimes to believe somebody when you think you know them that well.”
In 1977 Winkler starred in the film “Heroes,” which did reasonably well at the box office but was widely panned. Vincent Canby called it “truly rotten” and called out Winkler’s performance in particular as a kind of terrifying bellwether. Winkler brings “to the motion-picture theater all of the magic of commercial television except canned laughter,” he wrote, adding that it was “a frighteningly bad film because it could well be the definitive theatrical motion picture of the future.” The critics were just getting started. The following year Winkler starred in “The One and Only” (“alternates between the coy and the cute,” Canby complained) and the year after that an Americanized TV adaptation of “A Christmas Carol” (“unnecessary and pointless,” Tom Shales wrote).
“The audience that came wanted to see what they liked, and I thought I was being a clever, clever person doing something that would not typecast me,” Winkler said. “When I look back now at ‘The One and Only’ or ‘Heroes,’ I see an actor who is limited. I am no leading man. There is no leading man in me. I’m a character actor.”
When I asked what a great acting teacher like Gene might have done to help restore the talents of a 36-year-old superstar coming off 11 years as Fonzie, who might have lost focus or intensity or grown stuck in a certain persona, Winkler was momentarily silent.
“I don’t know. I would have to say, ‘OK, we’ve gotta break you down and clean out all of that experience so that you can renew, so that you can build on it.’ As his coach, I would have him do scenes that aren’t necessarily in his wheelhouse, stuff he was not comfortable with, and hopefully after months of that, he would break loose of this block of ice, it would start to crack.”
In the past two decades, Winkler has become widely known to generations of viewers who never knew the Fonz: as the wrathful OB-GYN Dr. Lu Saperstein on “Parks and Recreation,” as the fraudster father Eddie Lawson on “Royal Pains” and in his critically praised role as Barry Zuckerkorn, the world’s worst lawyer, on the beloved, deranged satire “Arrested Development.” Winkler has played such a wide variety of goofy or supporting roles since “Happy Days” that you might wonder whether there was anything he turned down. Five Adam Sandler movies, including “The Waterboy,” in which he played a hallucinating football coach. A murdered school principal in “Scream” (uncredited). He appeared on both “The Practice” and “Out of Practice,” voiced characters on “The Simpsons,” “South Park,” “Bob’s Burgers,” “Bojack Horseman” and “Robot Chicken”; played or voiced a Dr. Olson, a Dr. Watts, a Dr. Slocum and a Dr. Maniac, as well as an Uncle Ralph, an Uncle King Julien and a character called Nacho Cheese on a show called “Uncle Grandpa.” He has been involved in at least half a dozen Christmas movies. He appeared in 58 episodes of the oddball comedy “Childrens Hospital” without ever understanding what the show was about, and there was that moment back in 1995, on “The Larry Sanders Show,” when Jeffrey Tambor’s Hank Kingsley snaps at Winkler, playing himself, “You know you can’t just bang on a jukebox and go, ‘Aaayy aaayy ay,’ and all your problems disappear, Fonzie.” Winkler answers, perhaps unconvincingly, “It worked for me.”
In September, with the studio reopened, Winkler went back to work, shooting Season 3 of “Barry,” which premiered on April 24. Before he saw the scripts, he got a note from Hader. “ ‘Uh-oh, you’re gonna have fun this third season,’” Winkler recalled it saying. “And I thought: What does that mean? Do I end up in camouflage, holding a gun?”
“Henry comes to work every day like it’s his first day at the rodeo,” Sarah Goldberg said. “He brings a sense of joy and occasion, and I’ve never seen that in another performer let alone someone who’s been doing it as long as he has. And he always comes in smelling very good. That’s the thing that everybody comments on. You can smell his cologne before you see him, and everybody is relieved when they get there, the aroma of Henry is here, Dad’s here, everybody can breathe a sigh of relief.”
The message in “Barry” is that you must either grow or die and that the stage is a worthy place in which to transform, but that it will cost you. It’s sad and a little heartbreaking to watch Gene, still holding out for his own big break long after he should have quit, hoping for some miracle that will make him a brilliant actor. It echoes Barry’s own moment in Season 1 when he’s forced to murder his good friend and the trauma of it brings him to an emotional place that raises his performance in “Macbeth.”
Season 3 begins in a landscape of scorching beauty, and we find ourselves inside a nightmare of Barry’s making. His only way out is through the guidance of his beloved acting teacher, Gene, who is then pulled inside the nightmare and is forced to kneel in the middle of some wasteland and beg for his life. In this faded light, Gene looks almost burnished, the lines in his face deeply etched as his mostly white hair blows around. Staring up at the end of Barry’s gun, refusing to submit, there is a depth in his hazel eyes. Since the show began, Barry has been unable to reconcile where he is with where he wants to be. He wants to be a star, not a murderer, and wishes he could get past his unforgivable sins, but he can’t, can’t save himself or anyone else. But Gene won’t let him give up. If you want another chance, he says, like a man who really earned it, then earn it.
“This season is the most intense serial comedy I have ever done in my entire career,” Winkler said.
“There are a lot of things that are hard to watch this season,” Hader said, laughing. “It’s kind of darker.” He couldn’t stop laughing. “The pervading feeling is, you know, ‘Wow, Jesus Christ, oh, my God.’”
“All that stuff you squash,” Winkler told me, back in that bus stop on Columbus Avenue, “all that frustration, eventually you have to spoon it out, but then you’re left with holes inside you — from being criticized, from criticizing yourself and believing it.” He said, somewhat enigmatically, “I see myself as a chunk of Swiss cheese, and I have spent the last five years trying to fill all the holes so I become a chunk of Cheddar.” I pondered the cheese analogy and asked for clarification. He said: “I’m getting closer. I’m not working at being. I’ve finally gotten to the place where I can just be.”
This was the power of acting. “Henry definitely had some real tough moments of going to a place that was uncomfortable for him,” Berg said. “But he did an amazing job.”
“Yeah, you’re Fonzie, and then it went away,” Hader said. “But he did so much stuff, and great things keep happening to him.” He went on about Winkler’s lovely wife and house and family. “This is morbid,” Hader said, “but Henry’s one of those people I sometimes cry talking about, and he’s not even dead! But you get sad and go, ‘Oh, man, this all ends.’ I think on some level, he figured that out.” Hader laughed. “One day we’ll find out that he’s got like 20 bodies buried under the house, but until then, I’ll be on record: I think he’s a beautiful person.”
Matthew Klam is the author of “Sam the Cat and Other Stories” and, most recently, “Who Is Rich?” He teaches at Stony Brook University.